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A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

Analysis: Plot Analysis

Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.

Initial Situation

Released from prison in France, Doctor Manette starts a new life in England.

Falsely imprisoned for almost two decades, the good doctor emerges from prison a broken man. With the help of his old servant, Defarge, and his good friend, Mr. Lorry, however, he’s reunited with his daughter. They begin to reconstruct a fragile happiness out of the wreckage of the doctor’s ruined life.

Conflict

Lucie marries a French aristocrat.

Of course, she doesn’t know that she’s doing it at the time. Charles Darnay has given up his lands and his title. He’s disgusted by the way that the aristocracy has been handling (or mis-handling) affairs in France. He earns his living as a tutor; the Manettes continue to have a carefree, happy life. Or do they?

Complication

Charles decides to return to France to save an old steward of his family’s lands.

Revolutionary fever is building in France. The house of Charles's family is burned, which is just fine. In fact, just about everybody thinks it’s a good idea. Unfortunately, however, a steward of the land gets caught in the cross-fire. He’s imprisoned for helping the aristocracy. When Charles hears about this, he realizes that he has to return to France to help free his old servant.

Climax

Charles is arrested as an emigrant and an aristocrat; Doctor Manette frees him.

As the French Republic emerges, chaos rules the land. Charles picks the wrong time to head back to France. He’s immediately arrested. Luckily, Dr. Manette has some sway in France because he was once wrongly imprisoned by the aristocracy. He manages to get Charles released.

Suspense

Charles is re-arrested.

Wait; can’t you only get tried once? Well, there are new laws in France now. In fact, some might say that there are no laws in France now. In court, the jury reads a letter written by Dr. Manette during his imprisonment. In it, he reveals that Charles's father was the one who put him in prison in the first place. Charles is immediately sentenced to death.

Denouement

Sydney Carton comes up with a plan to save Charles.

Sydney Carton, the ne’er-do-well who miraculously saved Charles years earlier, comes back to repeat his heroics. Sydney’s in love with Lucie, see, so this is his way of demonstrating his love for her. He switches places with Charles in prison.

Conclusion

Sydney Carton sacrifices his own life for the happiness of Lucie’s family.

La Guillotine isn’t stopping anytime soon. Today, in fact, it whacks off fifty-two heads. There’s no real positive way to account for the present moment. Instead, Dickens does something pretty amazing: he uses the thoughts of a dying man to predict a happy ending in the future. Any happiness that is to come, of course, takes place off stage. That’s why the carriage containing all our other favorite characters has rolled away. Left to himself, Sydney has the chance to become the hero that he’s never let himself be. It’s tragic, sure, but there’s also something sublime and wonderful in his sacrifice.

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